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Why are you so WEIRD?
Individualism and kinship: The Bronze Age, Anglo-Saxons & Medieval England
Why are you so WEIRD? By this I mean of course Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic. If you haven’t heard this acronym before let me introduce you. WEIRD psychology is the brainchild of several academics - Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan - from their 2010 article ‘The weirdest people in the world’, where they argue that psychologists have been making assumptions about standard human nature from possibly the strangest subset of people of earth. They describe it thus:
WEIRD subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species – frequent outliers. The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ. The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans.
Henrich went on to write a bestselling 2020 book ‘The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous’ where he extends the original idea into a big history narrative, explaining the origins of Western individualism through the dynamics of Catholic social policy, and later Protestant sensibilities. The changes in kinship relationships, rise of the nuclear family, mass literacy, and voluntary, rather than obligatory institutions, led to a peculiar psychological disposition that in no way reflects the majority of human beings.
Although far more nuanced than its proponents, Henrich’s book dovetails nicely with a rising ‘postliberal’ mood across the West. Books like David Goodhart’s ‘The Road to Somewhere’ with its divide between the rootless ‘anywheres’ and the rooted ‘somewheres’; J.D Vance’s ‘Hillbilly Elegy’; Patrick Deneen’s ‘Why Liberalism Failed’, and writers such as Giles Fraser and Sohrab Ahmari often position the Enlightenment and the subsequent rise of individualism and capitalism as the source of many modern evils. Holding hands with the contemporary academic Left, who have long railed against ‘neoliberalism’, the result is strange blend of ‘trad’ virtues and a firing squad of many ideologies against the Great Enemy - Western-style liberal individualism. For both political wings there is a crude but effective story about a more collectivist past giving way to a more individualistic present.
This is nothing new however. The idea that the past was a more primitive, communal place, which changed with the disruption of modernity, beginning with the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, goes back centuries. Historian and activist R..H Tawney excoriated capitalism and individualism over a 100 years ago; Saint-Simon and the Owenites likely invented the pejorative ‘individualism’ a century before that. A broad academic consensus exists which posits that the Industrial Revolution and the market economy developed out of a violent expropriation and enclosure of common rural peasant land. It isn’t easy however to actually define what we mean by an ‘individualistic’ vs ‘collectivist’ mode of life, especially when dealing with archaeological or historical evidence, but here are some suggestions:
A spectra of kinship relationships and obligations
Whether legal systems, be they oral or written, regard the individual or group/family/clan as the basic unit of society
A focus on self-differentiation through career, bodily modification/adornment, expectations or other ideological manifestations
Whether the individual, or certain types of person, have moral worth in themselves
Social methods of rule enforcement - private guilt vs group shame for example
Personal mobility during a individual’s life
Family structure - multigenerational, nuclear, extended and so on
Whether land is directly inherited through the group or family
Others exist of course, and it becomes very difficult to produce a coherent system of thought when you take all the different factors into account. But taking a deeper look beyond than the narrative of Western Enlightenment individualism, Europe and especially England have a different story to tell.
Bronze Age Warriorhood & Aristocratic Individualism
The Neolithic farming communities of Europe are typically described as sharing a communalist approach to life and death. Group burials in large tombs without distinctions, a lack of exotic grave goods for individual people and a material culture which emphasises the group rather than the person.
In LBK [Neolithic] communities, group deaths seem to have effectively caused the identity and individuality of the victims to be erased. This stands in stark contrast to more traditional burial treatments, in which selected information pertaining to the role and standing of the deceased was routinely preserved through an individualised funeral rite
Patterns of Collective Violence in the Early Neolithic of Central Europe. Meyer et al 2018
We find similar expressions all over the world, for instance in the way many Andamanese islanders would dig up bones of loved ones and wear them:
Like all their other relics these possessions are lent or exchanged, passing from one person to another, until sometimes a skull may be found in possession of a man who does not know to whom it belonged
One of the great shifts in human history was the rise of the bronze age individual, or more specifically, the male warrior. This can be seen both in the material culture of the period (chariots, personal drinking vessels, individual graves, personal grooming objects, bodily adornments), and in the development of a broader Indo-European cultural sphere which emphasised weaker kinship bonds, monogamy, small nuclear families and social militarism. The results from Bell Beaker cemeteries support the view that early Indo-European expansion resulted in a shift towards monogamy, exogamy and the mobility of young men through fostering:
The buried individuals represent four to six generations of two family groups, one nuclear family at the Alburg cemetery, and one seemingly more extended at Irlbach. While likely monogamous, they practiced exogamy, as six out of eight non-locals are women…. This provides evidence for the society being patrilocal, perhaps as a way of protecting property among the male line, while in-marriage from many different places secured social and political networks and prevented inbreeding. We also find evidence that the communities practiced selection for which of their children (aged 0–14 years) received a proper burial, as buried juveniles were in all but one case boys, suggesting the priority of young males in the cemeteries. This is plausibly linked to the exchange of foster children as part of an expansionist kinship system which is well attested from later Indo-European-speaking cultural groups.
Contrast this with ethnographic descriptions of Kurdish kinship systems, which are both endogamous and clan-oriented:
Young men, nevertheless, had few possibilities of challenging the senior men who were in control of property and women. One had access to these ‘valuables’ as one went through the life cycle of growing up, going to the military, marrying, having children, and finally separating one’s own household either from the parental or the fraternal household
This Bronze Age individualism had its limits of course, and we are likely looking at a system in which elite warriors and their families maintained a form of egalitarianism, whereby reciprocity, host-stranger conventions, gift-giving, oaths of loyalty and meritocratic battle prowess forged strong bonds between unrelated groups of men.
First, all Indo-European cultures from the “earliest” times in the 5th millennium have seen the presence of warriors who sought to demonstrate their standing and wealth, by dressing in “ostentatious” ways; for example, with long or multiple belts and necklaces of copper beads, copper rings, copper spiral bracelets, gold fittings in their spears and javelins – with variations of styles depending on place and time but all demonstrative of an “individualizing ideology” (Anthony: 160, 237, 251, 259–63). Second, the Indo-European warriors “were interred as personalities showing off the equipment of life and their personal position in a final coup de theatre, rather than joining a more anonymous community of ancestors” (Sherratt 2001a: 192). Kurgan burials commemorated the deaths of special males; the stone circles and mounds, and the emphasis on “prestige weapons and insignia,” were intended to isolate and self aggrandize the achievements of warriors (Anthony: 245). Third, they developed a distinctive tradition of feasting and drinking, in which “individual hospitality rather than great communal ceremonies” dominated the occasions.
The Uniqueness of Western Civilization. Ricardo Duchesne. 2011
English Individualism - Loose Kinship, Germanic Origins
Due to the rejection of 19th century scholarship on Indo-European history and archaeology, there has been an awkward tension between even modern researchers on the European Bronze and Iron Ages and the later historical understanding of Medieval Europe. Whilst debates go back and forth on how much modern liberal bias influences our perception of the Bronze Age individual warrior, the gulf between the final ‘Germanic’ period and popular understandings of the Medieval world could not be greater. In this sudden jump we are placed into a world where the bulk of the population are ‘peasants’, that is to say an unfree people who work the land for the benefit of their lord or landowner. Unsurprisingly peasantry, serfdom and the whole concept of traditional agrarian societies have been a battleground for all number of ideologies, Marxism in particular. Crucial to any reading of Marxism is the existence of a pre-market, undifferentiated rural economy, where families are tied to the land, labour performed in service of the family and patriarchal households hand down inheritances.
England has long been the best source material for studies of medieval peasantry, sometimes called “most thoroughly investigated of all peasantries in history”. In an extraordinary book by Alan MacFarlane entitled The Origins of English Individualism, he argues that this image of the English peasantry is entirely wrong, and that by the 13th century England had nothing resembling a traditional serf or peasant class:
in thirteenth century England, single women, married women and widows all had very considerable property rights as individual persons. In many peasant societies, the household goes through a phase when there are two or more married couples in the same dwelling and eating from the same table. There is no evidence that this was prevalent in the thirteenth century, and there is a certain amount of evidence that households were predominantly nuclear
There is strong evidence of considerable individual mobility, as well as long-term differentiation between the landed and the landless. Doubt is even being cast on two other supposed features of the medieval peasantry, namely that they married young and that there was more or less universal marriage. The consequence of all these features is that there is a growing impression that the thirteenth century countryside was not broken up into self-contained and self-sufficient local "communities" with strong boundaries and highly differentiated from other communities. The society is beginning to appear much more like the sixteenth century, where people and money flowed through the countryside, where the individual was not born, married and buried amongst his kin
If we look at the writings of travellers and social commentators, we find that they did regard the English system as peculiar, particularly stressing the absence of communities, of family ties, of a fixed division between the "peasantry" and the rest. The constrasts are drawn very sharply in the work of De Tocqueville, particularly in his Ancien Regime. But he was only able to work back in the historical documents to the late fifteenth century. From that time, it was clear to him, England was inhabited by people with a social structure fundamentally different from that in France
If MacFarlane is right, and he does have his detractors, then English notions of kinship and individuality diverged from many other European nations, where a true ‘peasantry’ emerged, complete with the communalistic features of traditional, agrarian life.
In fact this argument goes deeper than medieval England, and traces its roots back into the Iron and Bronze ages. Towards the end of the 19th century and during the early 20th, there was an explosion of legal scholarship and thought surrounding the English Common Law and its antecedents. German and American scholars temporarily embarrassed the English with their advanced historical research into the foundations of common law:
lawyers who knew nothing but law, and only the common law at that. But for history the disaster was enormous. In proportion as Englishmen have made themselves good lawyers they have become bad historians. The whole fabric of the common law rests on a quantity of assumptions which as history are destitute of any sound basis of fact, and these assumptions have decisively influenced the ideas even of those English historians who, technically speaking, knew no law
Maine’s Village Communities - Henry Adams, 1872
The two most important legal history books by English scholars of the age, and maybe still today, were Ancient Law (1861) by Henry Maine, and The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I (1895), primarily written by Frederic Maitland. The second book was something of a reply to the first, since Maine’s argument followed perhaps a common line of thought for readers. Namely that English law originated with the collective, patriarchal family lineage in a pre-State condition, where the group ruled over the individual and the transformation has:
“been distinguished by the gradual dissolution of family dependency and the growth of individual obligation in its place. The Individual is steadily substituted for the Family, as the unit of which civil laws take account”
Maine pointed to Roman and Hindu law as examples of the pure Aryan or Indo-European legal system, where the absolute power of the male was celebrated and codified. In contrast Maitland, Adams and his American school of thought, rejected this claim and instead looked to Germanic law as the wellspring of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence:
Adams argued, by contrast, that Roman law and family structure were not typical of archaic law and the archaic family. He emphasised the extent to which archaic German law and family structure differed substantially from their Roman counterparts. The absolute power of the Roman paterfamilias did not exist in Germany, where a son had unlimited rights to acquire and own property, a daughter was not excluded from her family when she married, a wife could easily obtain a divorce to protect herself against her husband’s authority, and kinship was determined through the mother’s as well as the father’s side of the family.
-From Maine to Maitland via America. David Rabban. 2009
This last assertion about the emphasis on the dual lineage from both mother and father is very important. Anthropologically this is called ‘Eskimo Kinship’ - where the nuclear family has special terms, then other relations are lumped together as ‘cousin’, ‘aunt’ and so on. Bilateral descent is crucial, neither fatherly nor motherly ancestry is prioritised. This would seem to be the case for northern Europeans and especially the English since time immemorial. MacFarlane thinks that this system was in place since the 7th century AD; Adams argues for a much older rootstock:
Immediately after announcing his central theme, Adams dismissed the relevance of Maine’s theories of development from the patriarchal family to the state, though he did not cite Maine himself. He observed that scholars remained ignorant of societies antedating the Indo-European family, but did have sufficient information to reach meaningful conclusions about early Germanic society. The evidence of early German laws indicated a society of small families without a patriarchal chief, whose able-bodied male members united in a council as equal individuals rather than as families. The council elected civil and military officers, protected property, and arbitrated disputes, proving the supremacy of the state. The council did not, however, control the private affairs of families, decided according to family custom.
Although deeply unfashionable now, there is probably a great deal of low-hanging fruit available to the eccentric thinker who could link together recent archaeology, genetics and these older, forgotten legal histories of English law. Similarly with MacFarlane’s work, modern genetics may be able to help prove or disprove this thesis, as well as new archival work. There is a lot for the taking here, someone just needs to pick it up…
The Forgotten Indo-European legacy
Henrich’s thesis about the origins of WEIRDness seem to me to be half-true. His argument that the Church is largely responsible for transforming Western Europe from a clannish, communalist culture to an individualist one rests strongly on what his conception of this culture was like:
Here are some broad patterns in the tribal populations of pre-Christian Europe:
People lived enmeshed in kin-based organizations within tribal groups or networks. Extended family households were part of larger kin-groups (clans, houses, lineages, etc.), some of which were called sippen (Germanic) or septs (Celtic).
Inheritance and postmarital residence had patrilineal biases; people often lived in extended patrilineal households, and wives moved to live with their husbands’ kinfolk.
Many kinship units collectively owned or controlled territory. Even where individual ownership existed, kinfolk often retained inheritance rights such that lands couldn’t be sold or otherwise transferred without the consent of relatives.
Larger kin-based organizations provided individuals with both their legal and their social identities. Disputes within kin-groups were adjudicated internally, according to custom. Corporate responsibility meant that intentionality sometimes played little role in assigning punishments or levying fines for disputes between kin-groups.
Kin-based organizations provided members with protection, insurance, and security. These organizations cared for sick, injured, and poor members, as well as the elderly.
Arranged marriages with relatives were customary, as were marriage payments like dowry or bride price (where the groom or his family pays for the bride).
Polygynous marriages were common for high-status men. In many communities, men could pair with only one “primary” wife, typically someone of roughly equal social status, but could then add secondary wives, usually of lower social status
It’s interesting how much of this was refuted by earlier legal scholars, and increasingly contradicted by modern archaeology. In the 1905 landmark volume Essays in Anglo-Saxon Law, Ernest Young disagreed with the conception of Anglo-Saxon law as grounded in private property held by a patriarchal chief, to whom the family yielded. He held that the family was a collection of individuals, all of whom had rights:
“It is not the subjugation of all descendents to the will of an ascendant, but the voluntary association of the near kindred; and the control exercised by the family council in such a group as little resembles the despotic power of a patriarchal chief … as the free democratic constitution of primitive Germany resembled the highly aristocratic constitution of early Rome”
The shadow of Roman family law still holds sway in the imagination of academics, who have inherited a strand of thought which saw the paterfamilias as the ‘purest’ expression of pre-Christian domestic life. Many feminist critiques of modern patriarchy trace what they see as the ‘traditional’ Western family from Rome, ignoring the very different family and state structures of the Germanic north.
This is really something of a primer or an introduction into whole areas of thought surrounding kinship, individualism, private property, the free market and the legacies of pre-Christian life which make up the character of modern populations and nations. As it stands I think the fundamental break was the end of the Neolithic and the development of an aristocratic cultural and biological substrate during the Bronze Age, one which ushered in a form of individualism which set Europe on a different path.
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